new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Oh, Grow Up

I just caught the Spike TV Video Game Awards. Late I know, but with the advent of digitally recorded television, it's rare that I catch anything live these days. It was mostly horrible and sophomoric, made somewhat bearable by the ability to fast-forward any time shame and embarrassment overcame me. Even on a major (basic cable) television event, video games have still failed to embrace an identity that isn't cringe-worthy. Anyway, in the second hour comedian Sarah Silverman, whom I thoroughly enjoy (well, as thoroughly as someone can be enjoyed short of actually sharing space with them), came out to do her whole deadpan thing. If I were to create a ranking of my favorite comics, Sarah Silverman would likely enjoy a position at or near the top of said list. She's definitely an acquired taste, though. I purchased her movie, Jesus is Magic, as soon as it came out, and watched it with my girlfriend, who couldn't have been more disinterested in Silverman's intentionally awkward, oftentimes hard to watch style of comedy. I've noticed that recently Silverman's performance has become more and more difficult to differentiate from her as a person, which isn't exactly unheard of with regard to comics. In fact, it could be a credit to her craft that she is so deftly able to integrate her irony into her public appearances.

But back to the VGAs. Now granted I had just recently seen Sarah Silverman do an extremely funny routine at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she chastised Paris Hilton for being overweight - something at the time I thought was dangerous, hilarious, and appropriately awkward (as Hilton was in the audience at the time). Thus I was already prepared for a similar shtick. So when she began by revealing herself to be a "real live woman" to the audience of "gamers," I was both unsurprised and entertained. However, when she asked the audience how many of them were over the age of 15, and subsequently began to ridicule them for wasting their lives and the like, I was out of my chair, shouting back at the digitally-recorded comedian about how her sentiments were exactly the type of thing that "we fight against," and how the stigma that video games are something for children would burden us for years to come, forever threatening any possibility of legitimacy in the minds of the general population. For me, with the next generation trifecta resting comfortably under my television, her words had simply struck too close to home. I had completely forgotten that Sarah Silverman was a comedian, and that a crucial element of her humor relies on some segment of its recipients to be inappropriately offended. The audience at the awards show was likewise affected, booing her incessantly throughout the routine. It was not unlike what you would expect from Andy Kaufman's similarly ambiguous style of entertainment. That she so expertly inserted her routine in what had been up until that point some of the most embarrassing television ever produced only made the whole thing all the more poignant. Well done.

Whether or not Silverman's rant on video games was as socially ironic as her other comedy I'll probably never know, but I was struck nonetheless, as is the intent in much of her work. I have a permanent aversion to German automobiles due to material of hers, similarly tinged, calling attention to their ties to the Nazi party and WWII. And her rant on Paris Hilton, of course, was more of a commentary on the vapid state of celebrity and the detrimental effects it has on society, body image, et al.

In a recent interview, Phil Harrison, boss of all things Sony internal software development (and as such, one of the most powerful men in our industry) is quoted as saying, "I fervently believe that the biggest challenge we face is that our industry is referred to as 'video games,' and games are supposed to be fun." I wholeheartedly agree with this, adding that video games as a format have had the misfortune of being branded as some sort of idle past time reserved for children, a label that before the rise of Nintendo and their venerable Entertainment System, didn't seem to exist. Prior to the NES, video games were frequently relegated to bars and pool halls, hardly places frequented by children. And now, after 20 years of accrued stigma, video games are struggling to be seen as more of a legitimate medium. Some question this desire, and are content with whatever position video games occupy, so long as their personal video games needs are met; a new Zelda or Halo every 2-3 years, and all is right with the world as far as these people are concerned. But me, I won't be satisfied until purchasing a video game is as ubiquitous an act as going down to the local movie theater to catch the latest release. No one outgrows going to the movies, and yet the same expectation is not held for video games. Give me a break.

It's here where I offer my solution to the problem. Phil Harrison is looking for games that " with fear...with comedy and with death." I can deal with that. But I would love to see games attempt something that it seems most are completely remiss to broach: subtlety. Subtlety is what takes The Sopranos (the television show, my god, not the game) from gratuitous to distinguished. It's what makes Jaws (again, embarrassingly, not the game) culturally significant, rather than simple exploitation. Unfortunately, the industry still seems poised to capitalize on the one thing that we have always done well, something that can be quantified, calculated, and evaluated with a large level of autonomy: detail. It's the philosophy upon which the Xbox 360 and PS3 are built (the Wii is barking up an equally misguided tree, that of interface. I actually wouldn't mind if the Wii packed more detail-inducing horsepower in its diminutive frame; it takes a balance). It's why most video games attempts at dealing with fear, comedy, and death come off as gratuitous and exploitive. The difference in philosophy is huge.

Jack Thompson famously labeled the video game Bully a "Columbine Simulator." Anyone who has played the game surely realizes that nothing could be further from the truth, but let's stick with this for a second. One of my favorite movies, Elephant, is unabashedly inspired by the Columbine Massacre. It was, in fact, originally intended to be a factual account of the tragedy. During production that idea was abandoned in favor of a fictionalized retelling. The notion that a movie would take the Columbine Massacre as inspiration for its basis is only marginally controversial; nothing significant enough to keep Elephant from earning highest honors at the Cannes Film Festival. But even suggesting that a video game might exhibit similar qualities to a real life tragedy instantly conjures up controversy, enough to land Bully in front of a circuit judge in Florida. To be fair, the judge wisely dismissed the case as groundless, but I wish I could say I had absolute confidence in the video game industry to one day attempt to make a game that actually broached the same subject matter as Elephant. Video games are very good at what they try to express. It's just tragic that most games are about recreating nothing but the very basic verbs, like driving and shooting (and playing?). I'm scared of what my industry might come up with, if it were challenged with the task of creating something more eloquent.

We've seen some attempts at subtlety already, and I'm sure we'll see more. Read any article on this blog and you'll undoubtedly be able to decipher which games I feel are closer to my perceived ideal. Most of what we'll see in the coming years, I'd wager, is more of what we've already seen, which means lots of really entertaining, disposable, meaningless games that do nothing to challenge the perception that video games are idle wastes of time, meant for men living in their parent's basements. Men who never grew up, who never developed important social skills, like those needed for, I would imagine, making movies or television programs. Or perhaps stand-up comedy. It is subtlety, after all, that separates the initial knee-jerk reaction I had to Sarah Silverman's comments from the reality of her sentiment. It's why, ironically, what she does is the work of grown-ups.

Thanks for reading.


  • At 1:36 AM, Blogger eric williams said…

    It's going to be awesome to say "I knew that guy when" in the not so distant future.

  • At 7:58 PM, Blogger whiskeypail said…

    for serious, what percentage of games offer up what you would like to see?
    i havent played a single new game in the last year that makes me feel like im doing anything more than just playing(unless you count older games i have replayed).

    oh, and are you a fan of starship troopers?

  • At 4:01 PM, Blogger omar kendall said…

    Eric: Hah!

    Mike: The percentage is close to zero. But once a trend starts, it's hard to get it to stop; just take a look at Mario or Doom.

    And yes, I am a fan of Starship Troopers, in the same way I'm a fan of say, Street Fighter: The Movie. At a point a movie can get so bad that it's good. Brilliant, even.

  • At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Omar, if you dug Starship Troopers (which I know you did) and think SF The Movie is bad...I implore that you try to sit thru the Dead or Alive movie. It actually went so far beyond being "so bad that it is good" that it ended up being bad again.


  • At 3:34 AM, Blogger hà nguyễn said…

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